60% of U.Va. Students Have Disordered Eating Habits
Eating Disorders Education Coordinator Amy Chestnutt, a former U.Va. undergraduate, has returned to the University, coordinating efforts to create a “body-positive image” at U.Va. Chestnutt collaborates with other organizations across the University, working to ensure that “everyone at U.Va. enjoys a healthy relationship with food, exercise, and body image.” Approximately 60 percent of University students have some form of disordered eating, according to Chestnutt. Joining forces with other organizations through the U.Va. Coalition on Eating Disorders and Exercise, the Women’s Center Eating Disorders Program works to prevent disordered eating habits by translating current scientific findings into tangible practice and positive effects.
Chestnutt, whose passion includes encouraging nutrition, physical activity, and overall health and wellness in one-on-one settings, found a golden opportunity to apply such passion in her work with the Women’s Center Eating Disorders Program. After graduating from U.Va. with a B.A. in psychology, she earned her Master’s in Public Health from Emory University and worked for organizations such as the Center for Disease Control and the American Cancer Society. Chestnutt eventually returned to Charlottesville to take on the role of Eating Disorders Education Coordinator, a post which fits all her interests and needs, she said.
Chestnutt has the opportunity to find and connect students to resources “during an important developmental period of their lives." She explained: “I had several experiences personally knowing people with eating disorders or disordered eating throughout my life, like most people do, and I felt like [the job] connected really well with my interest in wellness.”
“Basically, I came here to do an intervention,” Chestnutt said, referring to her work running and facilitating the Reflections program, which is a part of the Women’s Center Eating Disorders Education Initiative (EDEI). Adapted from a program designed for sorority women, Reflections is a body acceptance intervention proven to reduce risk factors associated with eating disorders. Chestnutt works with interns to reach out through Residence Life to small groups of the general student population, including those with and without disordered eating habits. They coordinate sessions where first-year women brainstorm, discuss, and support each other about these issues.
“Through this activity, people start to see that his or her ideal is just that,” Chestnutt said. “98 percent of people in the population can never reach that beauty ideal, and even the people that we think reach it . . . they don’t even reach it. It’s all a big lie.” The program is “trying to do more and more,” Chestnutt said, hoping to expand to groups of resident advisers as well.
The Center also runs an annual awareness campaign about body image—Celebrate Every Body Week and Perfect Illusions—to raise awareness about eating disorders. “It’s very powerful,” Chestnutt said, noting that individuals have been traveling to the event for years. “People . . . stand and tell their stories.”
The continuation of these programs—as well as their future success—all depend on the funding that comes from generous donors. The program initially received enough funding for two years but has been stretched to last for two and a half. “We’ve been frugal in what we’ve done, but we are searching for funding constantly so that we can continue the program,” Chestnutt said.
The U.Va. Alumni Association announced in early April 2010 that the Women’s Center Eating Disorders Education Initiative (EDEI) would receive funding through a Jefferson Trust Grant. The grant will finance EDEI programming and Chestnutt’s salary during the 2010-2011 academic year. In the face of ever increasing state budget cuts, Jefferson Trust Grants provide much needed financial assistance to retain valued U.Va. faculty and support the important work that they do at the University. The grant will be used to address the epidemic of disordered eating, through tailored education and outreach initiatives, as it specifically affects U.Va.’s culture
Speaking to the overall goal of her work, Chestnutt stated, “we decided, and it was told to me upon being hired for this job, that the Women’s Center really wanted to work to change the culture at U.Va.” Through the recently allocated Jefferson Trust Grant, Chestnutt has the opportunity to more effectively reduce the prevalence of eating disorders, disorderd eating, and body image concerns in U.Va.’s student population. The realization of a more body-positive community at U.Va. is within reach.